January 1, 2012

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The College of Hard Knocks

Choosing Between College and Real-world Experience

Rebecca Palmer

January 1, 2012

With entrepreneurial superstars such as Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg finding success with little or no college education, the debate is raging about whether young people with a bent for business should skip higher education altogether.

One Utah entrepreneur has a novel idea: Why not go to college and start a business at the same time, asks Brandt Page, founder and CEO of Launch Leads LLC. His business-to-business lead generation company opened in 2009 and has grown 250 percent in just the last year. Before the Salt Lake City startup took off, Page was a co-founder of Junto Partners.

“Probably the best thing I did as an entrepreneur…was run a company while I was in college,” Page says. “I was able to stay on as a full-time student, or part-time in some cases, and utilize the many resources that being a college student gives you. You have free access to libraries, free access to mentors, to professors, to business competitions, to really being recognized and mentored and helped by a lot of people that you would pay thousands and thousands of dollars to when you’re out of school as a consultant.”

In the years between 1997 and 2006, just over half of businesses survived into their fifth year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only a quarter of businesses launched in 2001 have survived their first decade. These staggering failure rates, combined with a turbulent economy, have Utah business owners looking for every advantage.

Serial entrepreneur Alex Lawrence heads the Weber State University Innovation Center and teaches internet marketing at the college. He got the most out of higher education while leading his own business and simultaneously earning his MBA at WSU. “I did it for what I think are the right reasons, because I wanted to learn,” he says.

“I didn’t go to find friends and contacts but realized that was one of the benefits.”

A Full Plate

Page and Lawrence are highly motivated men with all the dedication and creativity necessary for startup success. But not everyone can handle running a business and taking classes, they point out. Both endeavors require a major time commitment, and neither is right for every personality.

The downsides to graduating from college before starting a business are many, including the high cost of tuition and the requirements to take irrelevant classes. Increasing job volatility and a higher-than-ever percentage of workers with bachelor’s degrees means that a college education is no longer a guarantee of success.

Joe Salisbury, a partner at Candlelight Homes in South Jordan, believes that going to college can put you at a disadvantage in some ways. Nevertheless, he says that becoming educated is vital to entrepreneurial success. Salisbury got his bachelor’s degree in Russian from Brigham Young University.

He went on to launch several businesses and plans to start a consulting and seminar business with Jared Westhoff, who got his education by way of real-world business experience, books and networking after dropping out of high school and college. Westhoff is the owner of Eugene Gordon, Inc., a real estate firm in the greater Sale Lake area.

“Regardless of how you get there, you need education,” Salisbury says. “Either way, it’s just so funny to see how our society gauges college as success.”

Michelle McCullough agrees with Salisbury. As Doodads founder and business development director at Startup Princess, she reads two or three nonfiction books per month and uses books on tape to turn her car into a classroom. She started, but never finished, a degree in public relations at BYU.

“The degree doesn’t matter as much as the determination,” she says. “The key for anyone is continuing education. It never ends, because technology changes so quickly.”

Not all entrepreneurs need a university degree, but most young people should go to college and then get a job, Lawrence says, especially if they aren’t cut out for the rigors of entrepreneurial life.

“It’s everything about personality fit,” he says. “If I knew someone [who] knew that it wasn’t just all glory and front pages of magazines, and knew that there was a downside—if I knew that they had the skills and were going to drop out of school to pursue it, I don’t think I would discourage them.”

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